DISCLAIMER – I do not own Mass Effect franchise, the story, or any of its characters. All rights go to Bioware.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

A little bit later update than I planned. Things are always quite a bit hectic in real life at the end of a year. Also, this chapter is a little long because there was no proper way to split it into two.

Now, without any further ado, here's an early little New Year's gift from me…


Chapter posted on 30.12.2017.

Main Tags: Action, Sci-fi, Adventure, Friendship building, Love.

Additional Tags: Slowly turning AU, Technology-heavy, Geopolitical themes, Economic themes, Intrigue, Militaristic…

Rated M – for mature and adult content.

Enjoy…


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Chapter 30 – Noveria – Pt II

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It was cold, Jaina thought. Despite them being inside the hallways of the Peak 15 facility, it was frigidly cold – the kind that pinched the skin and blocked out blood – but she didn't let it touch her. Next to her, Wrex couldn't care less. He might as well have been humming a tune. Liara was alert and solid. Strange what adrenalin and focus can do when you're being threatened by 300-pound insects popping out of the vents.

None ambushed them thus far; didn't mean there wouldn't be any at all.

And as expected, as soon the three of them filed out into the open space where the landline power cables were located, they saw a group of rachni soldiers and workers scuttling about in the cold.

The sound of doors opening up made all the bugs turn their big heads toward the intruders. With a screech, the three rachni soldiers braced for attack, lowering their heads and spreading their mandibles wide as they primed for discharge of their acidic bone spikes from their mouths.

"Barrier!" Liara called out, lunging and slamming down her biotics with a burst of snow around her.

The bone spikes broke against the broad sphere, the acid clouds puffing harmlessly through the air.

"Lift and detonate – Wrex!" Jaina called out as she channeled her own biotics and engulfed the three warriors in her own reducing field, followed by a massive, whoomping detonation as Wrex sent his Warp into the hovering group.

The torn and ravaged rachni went flying to the sides in a tangle of limbs, impacting structural pillars and walls with concussive force.

"Workers!" Liara warned at the incoming swarm of small green beetles. "Singularity!" she called out, going through a broad, sweeping motion that launched the gravity sphere.

"Warping!" Jaina followed through.

The blue mass detonated, sending the bugs flying in all directions and slamming against the walls.

Switching to SMG's, Liara and Jaina made quick work of the small crippled bugs as Wrex charged the screeching rachni soldier that was trying to get back up. With a body blow, he slammed the beast against the wall, then crushed its scull with a mighty swing of its shotgun, then aimed at the second surviving rachni that was trying to get up. The last soldier's pitiful wails were silenced with a mighty blast of his claymore.

The grizzled battlemaster took a mighty inhale of frosty air, letting the chill surge through his blood with renewing quality, then exhaling with a rumble in relish.

"Ahhh," he sighed. "To think that I get the chance to do something my grandfather only told me stories of."

"Relish it while you can," Jaina said, approaching the first disconnected landline cable. "By the time we're done, there won't be any left."

She crouched, lifting the first cable and popping into its slot, securing the safeties on it. She was met by Wrex's laughter, his gravelly voice crunching the air.

"Shame," he said.

"Poetic for there to be a krogan right as the rachni are attempting to rise again, though, don't you think?" Liara spoke to Wrex with a knowing smile and hands on her hips.

Wrex snorted.

"Yeah, that's what they'd tell ya," he said. "The Council would give me a medal and a slap on the back, and the rest of the krogan would be conveniently forgotten. Hell, I'm almost tempted to let the damn bugs loose on the galaxy! A perfect excuse to force the Council to sponsor a cure for the genophage. Except the same thing would happen again – as soon as the rachni are gone, the krogan would restart the Rebellions and – BOOM! – another genophage. Or worse!"

"You're not convinced there could be a diplomatic solution if that happened?" Liara ventured.

"No, there wouldn't," Jaina stated instead with surety. "Galactic policy and diplomacy revolve around exploiting other people. That's what the politics is. If the rachni were to be released onto the galaxy, the krogan would be tricked and used again by the Council, and human politicians would have done the same. The krogan would have been relegated to reservations, just like Tuchanka is now, to be kept on a leash for the next time they'd need to be used."

Liara sent her a petulant look. "Wow. Thanks for crushing my childish dreams," she said dryly, then sighed. "Well… can't say I don't see it happening. Two or three months ago, I'd have been shocked to hear you say it, but now I understand everything you're speaking of – the hypocrisy, the self-service – I understand. Goddess, do I understand…"

"That's what will make you stronger, kid," Wrex said stepping up after he finished with another landline. "You need to know how the world works." He then looked at Jaina from the side with one of his eyes. "That's what I like about you and your man, Jaina Shepard. You two are not forged from the same scrap metal the rest of the Galaxy is; you're made of real steel. You see things other people do not, and find solutions, which other people cannot. Wish there were more krogan like you… no, actually, scratch that; they'd be a hard competition. Hehehe."

Jaina snorted in amusement.

"Alright, I guess we're done here," she said looking around, and then tapped her comms. "Marcus, the landlines are secure. What's your status?"

"We've dispatched the geth here without much problem," his voice came through. "Tali, Kaidan, and Garrus are going through a generator startup sequence. We should be ready in –"

A sudden, loud whoosh and a hum that spread throughout the entire facility interrupted him. The landlines sparkled with high-voltage electricity, and the emergency illumination was replaced by real lighting.

"Right about now," Marcus finished. "Let's meet up at the main hall and proceed toward the tram."

"Roger that," Jaina said, and motioned for Wrex and Liara to follow her.

"Hey, Femshep," Wrex called.

"Femshep?" Jaina demanded with amusement.

"Well I gotta differentiate you somehow," Wrex argued to an amused exchange between Jaina and Liara. He continued, "I said that I've noticed you see things that other people do not. I stand by it. So indulge me on this question: in your opinion, what is the greatest obstacle to krogan becoming strong as a species?"

Jaina raised an eyebrow at him, and her silence for a few moments. Then,

"The greatest problem of krogan is the fact that you're too strong," she said. "You're too strong compared to other species and you've allowed yourselves to think that that's all it takes to solve all your problems when, obviously, that's not the case. It's too easy to kill even a krogan. Grab a grenade launcher, see what happens. Yet it's as if all of your kind seems to purposefully ignore it. It's like a collective blindness, and you're not even aware of it."

Wrex rumbled grimly. "You're right. That's what we've always been like."

"No, you haven't," she said. "Ten thousand years ago, krogan were prey on Tuchanka, yet you thrived. Your strength wasn't enough back then. You needed to be careful, calculated, smart, to think outside the box and watch each-other's backs, to cooperate against nature. Now, it's completely opposite. Who's tougher, am I tougher, I know better, I can do better, I want to fight you and kill you because that proves I'm stronger – that's not what civilizations work. Civilization works by cooperation. You, though, only look for enemies. When you can't find them outside, you turn against each other. It's like there's some destructive fire burning inside of you, driving you blind to everything else."

She seemed to realize something, pausing in thought.

"So what you're saying is that we need enemies to thrive," Wrex prompted.

"No… I think it's actually something else entirely," she said. She looked at him from the side. "Wrex, tell me something: how many times had you fallen into a blood rage?"

He looked back at her with his one red eye.

"Not once in my entire life," he said after a moment, returning his eyes to the path ahead. "I never bothered to have myself checked, but I'm pretty sure that I don't have the gene that's responsible for that inside me. Especially considering that everyone else in the family had it."

She nodded. "That must be why you, personally, have succeeded more than the other krogan. You're a mutant, Wrex. In a good way. And that's why I'm pretty sure that the blood rage gene is also the one that's responsible for the collective blindness." She shrugged with one shoulder. "Not that I'm a geneticist… But I'd stake my life on it! Your nuclear war was just an error; humans too were this close to it several times, so it shouldn't have been the basis on which to judge your destructive tendencies… It was only after that that krogan began to… loose themselves. I think the post-nuclear wasteland has mutated you in the wrong way, not only giving you blood rage, but also something more sinister; something that nobody realized or bothered to check."

Wrex's eye that regarded her was wide in the beginnings of a stark realization.

"So you're saying that there might be something else other than blood rage within us and that eliminating that gene would help?" he wondered.

"Long term, yes," she said.

"And short-term?"

"More fucking."

Wrex and Liara both did a double-take, stopping dead in their tracks.

"You heard me," Jaina said in all seriousness. "Krogan need to fuck more. Much more. It'd bleed out all that negative energy. Make more babies too. Right now, krogan fuck only if invited into female camps after they've proven themselves through some special event they came on top of, right? That's what – once every few weeks on average? No wonder you want to kill everything."

Wrex was looking at her wide-eyed and incredulous. Then,

"Hehe," it escaped his throat. Then more. "Hehehe, HAHAHAHAHAHA!" He bellowed happily. "Shit, Shepard. Should've realized it sooner; it makes perfect sense. You and your man are a perfect example of bleeding all that excess energy."

He turned serious.

"Krogan will never do all that on their own, and you know it," he said as they resumed their walk.

"I hear a certain krogan will make them do it," Jaina laid it on with a smirk.

"Hah. You hear right," Wrex rumbled. "I was already sure of what I needed to do. When you helped me retrieve my armor, my path was set. Now, though… forget rachni. Cloned krogan? And Reapers? Our future is on the precipice. Now it's more important than ever."

"Good to know we'll have friends taking our side," she commented.

They reached the main hall just about then, and just about at the same moment as the doors on the opposite side opened up to let the other group in.

"Talk about good timing," Jaina smirked.

"And let's not waste any of it," he said, motioning around the chamber. "Form a perimeter! Defensive circle at the center; we need to review the data. Tali – let's correlate what you've found."

"Got it!" Tali said as the team formed up defensively around her, Marcus, and Jaina, their back turned to each other.

"Now that the power's back up, I've reestablished sensors throughout the facility," Tali said, activating her omni-tool and sending the tactical overlay to everyone's HUDs. "I've got here the overlay of the entire facility with a real-time update. Turns out that most of the sensors are intact; we've got most of the vids and sensor locators throughout the facility!"

"Seems the rachni aren't smart enough to know they're a threat," Jaina said. "Their positions?"

"Here," Tali brought it up.

A number of red dots appeared on the sensors, many of them in the vents, some of them close by, but the majority in one huge chamber on the other side of the tram.

"The rest of you getting it?" Marcus asked. A number of affirmatives went around. "Keep an eye on those rachni dots closest to us. Tali, what's that chamber with the greatest concentration of rachni?" he asked, pointing at the mass of red dots.

"Hot labs."

"Wasn't that where Mira said the infestation began?" Garrus asked.

"It was," Marcus said. "Any security cams over there?"

"Hang on," Tali said, inputting the commands in her omni-tool's console. "There are several cameras; I'll try them one at a time… here we go."

What they saw was a scene of carnage.

The camera they picked showed them the destroyed lab offices. The destroyed furniture was all over the place. Blood was painting the walls. Blue blood, red blood, purple asari blood too, the latter splattered straight across the elevator entrance. Only one mangled turian body could be seen up against the wall, and no other bodies were there; rachni obviously didn't like dextro food.

"Where are all the rachni?" Jaina asked in wonder.

"I don't kn… wait, what's that?" Marcus pointed.

"Is that a man?" Jaina said in wonder. "He's alive!"

"How the hell is that possible? What's he doing?" Marcus wondered.

"He seems to be working on a terminal," Tali said. "I can't see what he's trying to do; the angle's wrong." She tried a few commands, then shook her head. "That terminal is isolated; I can't access it."

"We can see he's injured, though," Jaina said. "See there? A bloody patch on his side."

"But where are the rachni?" Wrex barked gruffly.

"There seem to be several chambers in the lab," Tali said. "Let me check another camera… Ah!"

"Jesus," Kaidan muttered from where he was looking at the feed at the corner of his helm's HUD. "There must be a hundred of them in there alone!"

The dark insectoid mass was apparently asleep all across the huge laboratory. Corpses could be seen strewn around between them, a couple of the active insects tearing into the unrecognizable flesh.

"Turn it off," Marcus said grimly. Tali didn't need to be told twice. "What I'm interested to know is how the hell is that man still alive. He's only two walls away from the insects."

"Whoever he is, he must have some method of warding them away," Jaina said. "No way he was able to survive that long in the hot labs on his own. That means we need to get our hands on whatever it is."

"Agreed, but we also need to know where Benezia is," Marcus said, then nodded at Tali. "Anything?"

"The sensors are picking up other survivors, but I can't find Benezia," Tali said. "I'm running all CCTV feeds through facial recognition software, but it's not pinging any positives. There is, however, one part of the facility where the feeds had been disabled. Here, the Secure Labs."

"A million bucks says Benezia's there," Jaina said.

"No bet," he retorted. "What about those other survivors?"

"Here and here," Tali said, pointing out two locations. One showed a bunch of huddled, frightened scientists, the other a barricade with a dozen ERSC personnel standing vigilant over it.

"So now we know the situation," Marcus said. "Show us the pathway that gets us there."

"Yes, Commander," she said, then began marking out the sections of the map. "This is where we are, the concourse of the facility's operations center. In order to get to Benezia, we need to get to the tram, through this hallway here. When we get out of the station on the opposite end, there is a concourse that leads to three directions: Hot Labs, Secure Labs, and the recreation section where the survivors are currently huddled."

"Which now leaves the question of whether it'd be prudent to go directly to Benezia in the Secure Labs or check with the scientists if anyone had seen Benezia and can give us any functional intel," Jaina said.

"And if Benezia has planted someone among the civilians?" Marcus asked.

"If they have comms to her, they could warn her, have her entrench," Kaidan noted.

"Or force her hand and have her come to us," Ashley added.

Marcus shook his head. "It doesn't matter; every scenario has pros and cons, and we've spent months polishing our team. Whatever the situation brings, we'll handle it. Now, one step at a time. First, we get to the other side. Then, we assess and adapt. Clear?"

"Clear," echoed across the team.

"Heads-up," Garrus called from where he monitored the tactical sensor layout of the surrounding area. "We got rachni incoming. Two hostiles. Sending the tactical outline to you…"

The team scrambled just as the pounding began to echo throughout the chamber as if someone was walking over thin metal panels of the air ducts, making them flex and bang.

A panel not far from them banged up, and a rachni soldier hopped out of it with uncanny speed, only to meet a hailstorm of rounds. Another rachni followed, throwing its dead compatriots body out of the way as it charged the group mindlessly, screeching, spitting spikes and spraying acid.

It too met the same fate before its four legs made three steps.

"They're not so tough!" Ashley chirped in mild realization when the last bug dropped dead.

"Exactly the problem," Wrex growled suspiciously. "Rachni aren't mindless beasts to charge blindly like this."

"Lulling us to drop our guard in order to ambush us?" Kaidan asked incredulously.

Wrex shook his head. "I don't think so… these rachni… they radiate some strange vibes. Something's strange."

"Then don't let your guard down," Jaina commanded.

"We move in a standard disposition down the corridors," Marcus added. "You know the drill."

They advanced, soft fighters in the middle, with strong one at the ends and Wrex at the spearhead.

"Commander, over here," Kaidan called from up front, pointing up to a security station guarding a corridor and separated from it with bullet-proof glass. A group of several rachni was shuffling about like a swarm of cockroaches, trying to break their way through the door.

"They're locked in tight," Garrus observed. "Those doors and walls are bullet proof."

"Why do they bother?" Ashley asked with a frown. "Their other friends didn't seem to have any problems shuffling through vents and walls."

Wrex was watching the bug aliens intently.

"That's because they lack coordination," he noticed. "Something's very wrong. Rachni are controlled by their queens, and the coordination they can bring to bear far surpasses that of any standard army." He shook his head. "But these rachni are completely crazed. Feral. Stupid. They act on instinct. You can practically smell it off of them."

Suddenly, a large gout of flame burst through the corridor where the rachni were, burning them to ashes in seconds. The people turned toward the security station's control consoles, where Tali was finishing up.

"I saved us some trouble," she shrugged.

Marcus and Jaina shared an amused look.

"Let's move out," he called.

Their track to the tram was uninterrupted, even after they entered the tram station's waiting area, filled with chairs and benches. They entered the wagon, settling around at strategic locations around, ready to defend against any hostile incursion, be it rachni or geth.

The tram moved quickly through the tunnel dug through the glacier and had reached the Rift Station in a matter of minutes. No rachni awaited them as they emptied out of the wagon readily aiming down the sights of their weapons.

"There," Garrus called, pointing out two exits.

Marcus approached one and tapped the button, being greeted with a grinding beep.

"This one's exit only," he said with a shake of his head. "Physical lock from the other side; can't be hacked."

"That one over there are the Hot Labs," Jaina motioned with her chin at the sign to the doors on the opposite side. "And those next to them lead to where the civvies are holed up."

"The Hot Labs doors are locked," Garrus mused, then approached and tapped the button that would summon the elevator, and an interface with a short message popped up:

"Locked by the order of Captain J. Ventralis."

There were a few heartbeats of silence.

"If these doors are locked, then that means that guy we saw on the security cams is locked down there with the bugs," Jaina almost whispered.

"This Ventralis guy might not have known there were any survivors," Marcus said slowly. "And people do rash things when faced with imminent death. Let's check with those security guards we saw on the cams. Ventralis might be the one leading them. Come on."

The team was quick on their feet as they filed down the hallway with their weapons ready. No rachni crossed the short trek, and they quickly reached a set of crude barricades made of crates and overturned desks. On the other side, a group of security personnel was huddling behind, aiming down the sights toward Marcus's group.

"Friendlies incoming!" Marcus called out.

There was a murmur on the other side, followed by a man's call:

"Stand down everyone!"

Marcus motioned for his team to follow him into the chamber. As he walked, he took a careful look at the people that waited for them behind the barricades. Universal looks of relief were painted on their faces, both the few humans and turians that were there. But, there was something else there as well. Strange facial movements. Eyes wild, frantic and searching, facial twitches and jerks. He recognized all the hallmarks of prolonged stim-pack overuse right then and there.

Their apparent leader stepped up and spoke with obvious relief:

"I don't know who you are or what you're doing here, but I sure as hell am glad to see some friendly faces. The name's Ventralis, Captain of the Rift Station security force; what's left of it anyway."

"Commander Shepard, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance of the Citadel," Marcus said. "What's the situation here?"

"You're that new Spectre? Jeez," Ventralis muttered. "I heard some whispers about it; few news reaches us here. Didn't think the Council would send their men to take care of things here on a private world, but I ain't looking at a heavily-armed horse's mouth!"

"The situation, Captain," Marcus repeated pointedly.

"Right. Right. They broke out of the Labs last week," he said, his voice on edge and his posture stiff. "All of the scientists that worked there are dead. Only one guy managed to get out of there alive, and he ain't all himself anymore. They overran our security station within minutes before we even realized what was going on. I managed to rally some of my men and barricade ourselves here, protecting the survivors. We've been on the guard ever since. I used my remote access to lock down the elevator to the Labs, so they hadn't been attacking us as much since, but they still come at completely irregular patterns, with irregular numbers… we've barely slept at all."

"So, it is only you and the survivors here?" Jaina asked.

"No, the Board of Directors sent an asari matriarch with her personal team to clean up the mess, named Benezia," he said. Marcus noticed a split second of hesitation before he spoke again. "She's been at the Hot Labs since yesterday along with her asari commandos and some weird-ass mechs. She said that we need to remain there until she solves the problem."

"Hot Labs?" Ashley croaked incredulously, then immediately shut her mouth.

She didn't need to speak out what was on everyone's mind; they had seen the state of the Hot Labs on CCTV after they had reestablished power throughout the facility. There were no asari or geth in there. There was not enough purple blood to account for twenty asari commandos if they were dead, and there was definitely no wrecked geth either. Ventralis was lying.

"So Benezia went there with commandos and what you thought were mechs?" Jaina asked. "No krogan mercenaries by any chance?"

"No, there were no krogan with her," Ventralis said. "Like I said, only asari and those strange mechs."

"Mechs," Ashley muttered with disdain. "Those are geth soldiers, stupid! Honestly, it's been two months since Eden Prime! How can people still be so ignorant even here?!"

"Now hold on just one damn minute!" he said angrily, "it's the company policy to keep this place in the dark when it comes to both outgoing and incoming communication, and that includes the news. I barely even heard of the Eden Prime attack and a human becoming a Spectre, and that was through some back channels! No pictures whatsoever. How the hell was I supposed to know those were Geth?"

"I'm always amazed by what people are willing to put themselves through for money," Garrus commented.

"Hey," Ventralis barked, "if you've seen the fat check I get for this job, you'd sing a different tune."

"Really?" Wrex spoke up, his deep and powerful voice bringing Ventralis short. "The last I checked, credits cannot buy you another life once you're dead, which is exactly how you're going to end up if you keep that tone."

Ventralis ground his teeth in frustration. Marcus spoke up:

"This asari that was sent by the Board of Directors, is an accomplice in the Eden Prime terrorist attack. Are you sure she's still at the Hot Labs?"

"She hasn't come back here," the captain replied in a rushed, defensive manner. "And if you haven't seen her, then – yeah, she's still there!"

Marcus shared a look with Jaina, sharing another wordless conversation and a silent understanding. Ventralis was on Benezia's payroll and he didn't even know what he was doing.

"What do you know about these creatures, anyway?" Jaina played dumb.

"They're fast, vicious, and there's a shitload of them," was his quick answer. It was not rehearsed. "I have no idea what kind of twisted genetic experiment they are, except that they came from the Hot Labs."

"Alright, then, give us the key code to the Hot Labs elevator," Jaina said. "We'll get down there and settle this."

"Hey, are you sure?" he pretended to care. "Nobody got out of there alive, except Han Olar!"

Marcus just thrust out his omni-tool insistently. Ventralis shrugged and activated his omni-tool transferring the unlock sequence without any further prompt. Marcus motioned his team to move back to where they came from.

"Stay here," he said as he walked backwards, not letting Ventralis out of his sight. "We'll be back shortly."

The doors closed in front of his face and he turned back to his people as they advanced down the hall.

"I cannot believe that guy has just sent us to die," Ashley growled.

"Calm yourself," Marcus ordered. "The CCTV showed there's a survivor down there; if I was a betting man, I'd stake my life on the fact that he has something big we can use."

"How else could he have survived there all alone," Wrex rumbled.

"We're here," Jaina called from the front as she sent the unlock code to the Hot Labs elevator doors.

They piled into the empty elevator and promptly descended, all eight sets of weapons ready and trailed toward the exit. Instead, when the doors opened, all they saw was what they expected to see: a single, large, and completely wrecked lab office, with one human man sitting in front of a single functioning terminal.

The man was completely oblivious to them, working intently, almost frantically.

Marcus motioned the team with two fingers, and they fanned out of the elevator, securing key lanes of attack as he approached the unknown man that sat near the desk.

As he did, a strange, unpleasant static began filling his helmet earphones, inaudible, almost like an ultrasound.

"Hey!" Marcus called.

The man jerked away from the console he worked on, turning and looking around frantically, noticing the new incomers for the first time. His face was pale, drawn, but as soon as he realized who he was seeing, it was replaced by a look of absolute relief.

"Ah! Ungh!" he moaned, clutching his side. "Oh, thank god! Thank god! You're here!" he said with a thick Slavic accent.

"Who are you?" Marcus demanded as he approached. "How are you alive?"

"Ah, yes," the man nodded, coherence only slowly beginning to return to him. "My name is Yaroslev Tartakovski. I am a researcher here."

He gulped, his throat dry. Marcus reached him just then and removed his small water can from his hip, planting it to man's lips.

"Easy," he said. "Little sips."

"Thank you," Tartakovski said as Liara stepped up and scanned him.

"No internal organ damage, just a deep gash, but no big blood vessels ruptured," the asari said, and Marcus offered him a deeper sip, while Liara applied a shot of medigel next to his wound. Tartakovski sighed in relief.

"Saved by my layer of fat, no doubt," Yaroslev joked.

"Are you the only one here?" Jaina asked.

"Yes, I'm the only one alive," the scientist said. "Nobody else made it out. Maybe Han Olar did; I haven't seen them drag his body away. I've been trying to get out of here for days, but the elevator has been locked from the other side, and I'm not a computer expert to hack it. I was running out of food and water. If you didn't show up…"

"Are you sure nobody else came here before us?" Marcus demanded. "We were told that an asari matriarch came here a day ago with an escort of commandos."

Yaroslev looked up at him with surprise evident on his face.

"Whoever told you that lied to you," he said. "There was no way that they didn't know what was happening here; they have sent you to your death!"

"We figured that much already," Garrus shrugged. "Never hurts to double-check."

"We'll have a nice talk with Ventralis once we're out," Marcus promised coolly. "Tell me, are you one of the people who worked on resurrecting the rachni?"

The scientist took a moment to process what Marcus had just said. The flame seemed to go out of him.

"Ah. So, you know."

"I know."

There was a moment of pause before Marcus spoke again:

"I need to know how you survived here."

Tartakovski licked his lips and raised his omni-tool pointing to it.

"Rachni are sensitive to certain sound frequencies. That is what we discovered while we studied them. Certain sound frequencies cause discomfort to them, while others cause an outright pain. It was the only way to control them in any way. Once they broke free, I realized that this might be my only chance to save myself. I activated the sound on the omni-tool, and they kept away from me. Their swarm ignored me while it chased the others down."

"That must be the odd barely-audible noise that's filling my ears," Garrus muttered, the others nodding their assent.

"Doctor, I need to know what happened here," Marcus said at last.

Tartakovski took a deep breath, and spoke:

"I assume you know the story of how we got the rachni?"

Marcus nodded.

"I don't know how they broke free," Tartakovski said. "It's just one of those things that happened. Like in a horror movie. Someone must have made a misstep during security checks."

"Why the hell did you allow so many of them to hatch, for Spirit's sake?" Garrus asked. "I can understand two or three, but over a hudred?"

Tartakovski sighed.

"Binary Helix planned to clone the rachni," he said. "They wanted to mass produce them, to create an army to be sold to the highest bidder. And they wanted it now."

"Motherfucker!" Kaidan cursed empathically. Tartakovsky continued.

"Yes, indeed. I know it sounds hollow now, but none of us scientists were exactly in a position to argue. They first thought they found an ordinary egg, but it turned out to be a queen! They were happy for more genetic versatility. Rachni do not breed with ordinary male-female mating. The child queen is conceived from dozens of different genetic parents, and she carries all of the genetic material readily in her and is able to mutate it. After the queen laid eggs, they took her eggs away from Secure Facility to Hot Labs, here, to be hatched. They thought they could control them easily that way."

"Sounds like it that didn't work as planned," Liara said dryly.

"No, it most certainly did not," Tartakovsky replied empathically. "This was exactly the wrong thing to do. My colleague and I realized that rachni are in fact just like ants or bees. Without a queen, they do not develop properly. In fact, they do not develop at all! It is her mind that is biotically shaping theirs, even while they are growing in an egg. We placed a pair of eggs close to the queen for the sake of providing us with a working sample, and the grown rachni developed real sentience and intelligence! But these other rachni are completely berserk."

"So, if we leave these rachni as they were, they just keep rampaging," Jaina mused out loud. "If we bring the queen to them, then the queen just takes control and assaults us in a far more organized manner."

"Ah, no, none of that would happen!" Tartakovsky said empathically. "For one, bringing the queen won't bring these rachni under her control. Their minds weren't properly formed during maturation, and they simply cannot link to the queen. We tested this already by bringing the crazed specimens to the queen. It doesn't work. They are beyond saving. I do wish that queen could put them under her control; that would be the ideal solution."

The entire team's eyes widened.

"You're kidding!" Garrus croaked.

"No, I assure you I do not," Tartakovski said seriously.

"You mean to say the queen would not attack us after she got her hands on an army?" Jaina asked skeptically.

"There's a good chance that she wouldn't," Tartakovski said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.

"How can that be possible?" Liara demanded as she pinned Yaroslev with a glare. "The rachni are hailed as genocidal alien monsters. Are you saying everyone's been wrong two thousand years ago?"

"I do not know what happened two thousand years ago, but rachni are not beasts, miss," Yaroslev said. "They were an interstellar species. The queen's egg was found on a derelict rachni ship in a cryogenic suspension. It was obvious that they were very intelligent, and we wanted to establish communication with her. A cooperative queen would have been much better."

He sighed and swallowed, color now beginning to return to his face from the application of medigel.

"I was the lead scientist in the Secure Labs," he continued. "I was the one who worked with the queen the most. We were creating a breakthrough in creating a communication device. It was crude, and could only translate basic sentences, but it brought the point across. We had psychologists with us, and they tested the queen's intelligence and responses to a great extent. From that, we know that the queen's first instinct would be to flee to a safe location with whatever brood she could bring with her. If we were to give her passage, she would have just retreated. That is the first response of any sane organism. She wanted to be free, she wanted us to stop taking her children away from her and flee, but she did not want to go into an immediate, blind rampage."

"How can you be so sure?" Wrex growled. "Rachni are not beasts, you're right about that, but they're cunning. They might very well have used that intelligence to trick you."

Yaroslev smiled and spoke: "Ah, but you see, she couldn't lie! Rachni cannot lie! They communicate by biotically influencing thoughts and transferring their own thoughts to another rachni. The queen calls it 'the song'. Me and my colleague, Lazlo, together with the psychologists, have had very solid indications that rachni couldn't lie because their communication functions by directly transferring thoughts! You cannot lie with your thoughts. The thoughts carry intent, and if the intent was to lie, it would be sensed immediately by the recipient."

"So this device you had worked as a lie detector?" Marcus asked.

"What? N-no, that's not… Listen, the device is an eezo resonance device, based off of a basic biotic amp. It picks up the biotic thought waves rachni send and translates the meaning. It is not like a normal conversation, so the translation is crude and generalized, but since it's directly sent from the queen's brain, it cannot be faked! Trust me!"

Marcus and Jaina looked at each other, and then shared a silent look with everyone else. A sense of important revelation swept them, and visage of intent focus was etched on everyone's face.

"So, you're saying this queen can be reasoned with?" Marcus asked.

"I do," he replied. "We did reason with her before! If nothing else, you might be able to negotiate with her."

Marcus frowned, the cogs in his head working intently.

"Alright," he nodded. "We'll try talking with the rachni queen first. If it doesn't work, we can always kill her later. Is the queen here?"

"Ah, no," Yaroslev replied. "This is only where the other rachni were brought to hatch. There's a lab, and a large hangar further down that corridor. That's where most of the rachni host is. They're leaving me alone here because of the ultrasound my omni-tool broadcasts."

"We know; we saw it on the security feeds," Jaina said, then looked at Marcus. "We still need to take care of those rachni."

"The neutron purge would be the best!" Tartakovski said eagerly. "It was installed here just in case of this happened. It will kill everything living in this lab, and the radiation will be minor further out. Pardon me for not activating it on my own, but I hoped to live through this. Here…"

He typed in a few commands on the terminal, and the security feed of the large hangar where rachni were popped up.

"This is them," he said. "There were one hundred and seven soldiers when they escaped, but fifty more had hatched since, and will keep doing so. Every few hours some of them would wander off through that vent hatch over there, probably to assault other areas of the facility. None return."

"We killed plenty of those that got out. Ventralis's men did too. We might not be able to get those few rachni that are already out in other areas of the facility, but this will certainly take care of the vast majority, and the remaining eggs."

"True," Yaroslev said, then took out his keycard. "This contains codes to initiate the purge. All we need to do is insert it in any terminal and set up the timer."

"Do it," Marcus said, and Tartakovski obeyed.

He inserted the keycard and tapped a few commands.

"There," he said. "I've set the timer for two minutes. All we need to do is press the execute button."

"Kaidan, Liara, help him to the elevator," Marcus said, and the two squadmates hustled to help Tartakovski.

The rest of the team retreated to the elevator, maintaining their strategic position and watching the surroundings warily. When they were all at the elevator doors, Marcus initiated the countdown and walked briskly back to the elevator entrance.

"Warning! Neutron purge countdown initiated," Mira's VI voice echoed throughout the facility. "Two minutes to detonation."

The elevator doors closed behind Marcus, and it quickly to the upper level, then exiting the elevator and moving into the hall.

"Are we safe here?" Marcus asked Yaroslev.

"Ah. Yes, very," the man said, limping along slowly as he held onto Liara.

"We'll wait it out here, then, to know if something went wrong. Set up guarding positions there, there and there."

The team moved to obey, and then they all waited out the countdown sequence. Mira's voice warned them every thirty seconds of the time remaining, and then finally counted down from ten.

A muffled whizzing thud and a groan of material echoed throughout the facility. There was slight shaking, and then it all settled.

"Neutron bombardment successful," Mira's voice called over the facility's speakers. "No remaining organic life signs detected in the Hot Labs."

"What do we have on the facility scans?" Marcus asked.

"Less than a dozen or so signals remain throughout the vents," Tali said. "None close by."

"Then, let's go," Marcus called grimly into the ensuring silence. "We have a scheduled conversation with a certain captain of the security force."

"Damn straight," Wrex growled. "Sending me to be killed by rachni, is he?"

Echoed by silent murmurs of assent from other squadmates, the team advanced back toward Ventralis's defense bottleneck, their disposition prepared to storm out of the confined space.

"Shoot first," Marcus ordered. "Ask questions later."

Ready callbacks of assent echoed through the hallway as the team prepped their weapons. The area around them began to shimmer blue from the charging biotic fields of all the crewmembers, ready to both defend and dish out death at any moment.

They reached the doors and pressed the opening hologram.

"Fire, fire!" they heard Ventralis's voice from in front of them, just before they were peppered with sustained assault rifle fire.

Wasting no second, Marcus initiated a biotic charge. Time seemed to slow for a split second as reality seemed to contort around him, and then he slammed into a makeshift barrier with superior might, dislodging both it and men hiding behind with a violent push. A biotic nova ensued, launching everyone and everything with explosive force.

Before anyone on the opposite side knew what had happened, another crewmember's biotic push slammed against another barricade, sending enemies flying through the air to be picked off by a floating singularity and spun like rag dolls before a warp field detonated the thing with a shaking quake.

Wrex barreled into the dazed and confused soldiers with a roar, crushing both bones and armor and sending explosive shotgun rounds down their heads and chests at point blank range.

A few more detonations and pistol and rifle shots from Marcus's team, and all twelve ERSC personnel members were dead. Ventralis, though, by some lucky stroke still alive, was lying against a wall, panting, and completely dazed. He sported a gash was on the side of his head where he had struck against something hard when the biotics had kicked him away. It was evident his ribs were broken too.

Marcus stood above him, kicking the man's rifle away.

"You tried to set us up," he said icily. "I don't need to explain how I don't appreciate that."

"I was ordered to," he said, panting. "It was that asari matriarch… Benezia. She… she came with her commandos and those mechs… the geth… and she said that if anyone came here after her, to send them down to the Hot Labs… 'let the rachni deal with them' she said. The bitch."

"Did she know it would be me that would be coming after her?" Marcus asked.

Ventralis exhaled tiredly.

"I don't know," he whined, shaking his head heavily. "She just said 'anyone'. Look I get a fat paycheck for this, and I'd like to keep this job. I wasn't gonna ask any questions."

"Where is she now?"

"At the Secure Lab. That's where she truly went yesterday."

Marcus looked questioningly at Yaroslev, who had by then limped out of the corridor into the open space and approached them.

"That's the lab where the queen is being held," the Russian said. "It is past the common lounge area, and down the secure area. There should be a lot of drone turrets there that fire automatically on anyone who does not broadcast a clearance signal."

"The drones won't be a problem," Marcus stated with a shake of his head.

"Look, I've told you everything I know," Ventralis said. "I'm not a threat anymore right? And I'm risking being sued and fired if the Board of Directors finds out how much I helped you. Can I go now?"

Marcus looked down at the man in a complete, incredulous surprise, and then pulled out a gun and shot him in the head.

The lifeless body slumped to the floor, the wall to the side of him painted with blood and pieces of brain mass.

Tartakovski had winced at the shot, but only sighed tiredly as he looked at the lifeless body.

"Let's move," Marcus called. "We'll check the survivors, if there truly are any in the common area, and then head out toward the Secure Labs. Keep your guard up."

The team walked through the corridor and entered the spacious common area that was intended for the working personnel to rest on their brakes. Marcus immediately saw plenty of civilians of various species there. They were sitting as a large group on the floor. A single asari was standing next to the group, using a scared woman as a living shield as she pointed a gun at other people, with four geth soldiers providing support.

"That's far enough, Shepard!" the asari spoke up smugly. "Don't even try it! I can sense you're charging biotics, but ask yourself whether your hand can be faster casting a biotic throw than my finger would pulling the trigger. And my geth friends here are more than capable of holding you at bay while I kill off all of these sniveling nerds."

She was right, Marcus thought as he glared at her gun grimly. Her bullet really would be faster than anyone's arm launching biotics. That was the tradeoff of the mnemonics: you could launch stronger blasts, but you needed to literally go through the motions. Only matriarchs were known to be powerful enough to channel biotics with their mind alone, using no physical motions. Matriarchs… and certain Earth gang rats who needed it for pickpocketing.

He focused, the sensations rolling through his head as his eezo nodules synchronized. The felt up the asari's gun with his mind, the imperceptible fields caressing its internal mechanism. There. His mind wrenched at the part, hard.

Oblivious, the asari kept up with her imperious speech:

"So here's what you're going to do: you're all going to drop your weapons – all of your weapons, and slide them this way. Otherwise, I start killing people. The fresh new Spectre doesn't want innocent deaths so soon on his record, now does he?"

"The new Spectre doesn't give a fuck," he stated, then glanced back at his team. "Kill this cunt."

The asari was first, growling as she pulled the trigger at a hostage. The trigger clicked, and her pistol exploded to splinters, taking her entire hand off with it and leaving her screaming.

Gunfire surged across the small space, tearing into shields and armor on both sides.

And it was over, just like that.

Outnumbered two-to-one, the geth were quickly taken out but not before exerting their token resistance. Kaidan and Ashley, whose duty made them jumped in front of everyone, had gotten their shields overwhelmed.

Marcus approached and give Ashley a once-over where she clutched at her stomach only to see it was all good. The few geth rounds had embedded themselves deep into her armor, knocking her air out, but the plating fulfilled its purpose. Kaidan's armor, in turn, was only nicked. Glancing over at the hostages, proved all of them still alive and unharmed, if dazed and literally pissing themselves.

That only left one loose end.

Marcus stepped up to the asari who sat down on the floor in shock, cradling her ruined stump, and discharged an explosive round into her head, splattering it into a purple goo.

The dust settled, and the hostages began releasing sounds of relief.

"What the hell happened when her gun exploded?" Ashley asked.

"I warped its mechanism with my biotics," Marcus said. "Don't try this at home, kids, unless you know both how to channel without mnemonics and exactly which internal component to target."

"No arguments here," Kaidan said readily.

Suddenly they heard Tartakovski's unmistakable voice:

"Olar! You're alive!"

The volus he spoke to looked up and nodded.

"Tartakovski," he said levelly, his breathing system hissing. "I killed her."

Yaroslev was brought up short. "Killed who?" he asked in confusion.

"Zhonmua," Olar replied evenly, monotonously as if he was preparing breakfast. "We were going to lunch when the alarms went off. I ran into the elevator, and I closed the doors. She banged on the window once, and then they sliced her to pieces. Her head came apart like a melon. I closed the doors. I killed her."

Tartakovski was silent for a moment.

"If you didn't you'd be dead now," he said, his accent sounding even thicker.

"True," the volus replied.

Marcus approached the group of civilian scientists and technicians that huddled together and spoke,

"This asari woman I just killed wore a scientist's uniform. Who was she?"

An elderly man replied, "She was Doctor Alestia Iallis. She worked here for almost a month now. We never thought she was anything but an ordinary scientist!"

"And the geth?"

"They came from there," he pointed down another corridor.

"The Secure Labs," Tartakovsky said. "The primary entrance."

"It was Benezia who sent them," Olar said simply. "Both the geth and Alestia, as well as Ventralis's men. She wanted to cover up everything here. She ordered them to kill us all."

"Why would they do this?" A female scientist cried out.

"She works for Spectre Saren Arterius," Olar stated simply. "He wanted to breed the rachni as an army."

"Former Spectre," Jaina clarified. "We're here to bring Benezia down. You said that was the primary entrance to the Secure Labs. Are there others?"

"There is one more," Olar said slowly. "through the maintenance area, over there. As you can see, both paths converge here."

Marcus examined the paths and then turned to Tali.

"Tali, disable the doors that lead through the maintenance area. Seal them physically if possible."

"Sure," she nodded and moved to work on the doors, activating her orb drones that started working on welding the doors down.

"As for the survivors, you will head out to the tram and wait for us there. The rachni threat was contained; we've activated a neutron purge. There are a few stragglers in the vents, but we've reactivated the facility's sensors and security systems, so you can avoid them easily; all you need to do is hook up your omnitools to it. But just in case, pick up the security team's weapons, and get into the tram and wait for us there. It should protect you should there be any rachni remaining."

Sounds of relief spread through the crowd, and people began carefully shuffling out of the area toward the tram, with Tartakovski joining them.

Tali joined them just then, finishing up her work in short order.

"It's done," she said. "Not even a group of biotics could tear down those doors."

Marcus nodded, and then walked up to Liara, touching her shoulder and motioning her with his head to a few paces off. He took off his helmet for the first time since they reached Peak 15, his eyes scrutinizing her carefully. He nodded at her with his chin.

"How are you holding up?" he asked.

"Solid," she stated.

Interesting choice of words, he thought. It fit, he noticed. Her gaze was just as such. Firm and clear. Solid. He took a slow breath, pointing to the doors they'd be passing through any minute.

"I'm asking because your mother's behind those doors," he said.

Liara looked somber for a moment, turning her gaze toward the doors and looking beyond them.

With his helm off, he could sense it in her. Her aura was radiating, and it was firm. So incredibly firm. He could sense her logical mind was working up excuses by the dozen – that it was her mother, that blood is thicker than water – but they were pale. She didn't feel them. Compared to her aura, they were nothing but a buzz in the background. Her aura was – solid.

She looked at him as she thought of what to say. Then, she smirked at him.

"Don't worry," she said. "I won't let her hurt you."

He huffed a lopsided chuckle.

"That so, T'Soni?"

She smirked back, then her gaze turned deadly serious.

"That so," she stated firmly.

Marcus felt a twitch of excitement in his veins. Right there, the way she said it, the way her shaded frown and voice deepened, firm and scary at the same time, she reminded him of the only other woman that ever truly caught his eye. He wanted to pin her against the wall and ravage her right then and there.

He resisted the urge to lick his lips like a wolf, holding her gaze instead, his icy blue eyes penetrating and her cobalt blues open and welcoming to his search. He was satisfied with what he saw. Her gaze the same as Jaina's.

A corner of his mouth curled upward slightly. He nodded at her. He knew her mind was in the right place. He could feel it. That meant he could bring all of his focus on the real enemy, now.

He replaced his helmet, and called out, "Let's roll!"

The eight people walked down the main corridor toward the Secure Lab, disabling the few automated turrets and drones that were in their way.

"Wrex at the front," Marcus called. "Pump up the biotic barriers; you'll be soaking in the first shots. Liara, prep a sphere barrier. Have it ready at the twitch of your finger; I want it slamming down on top of us the instant the shit comes dropping down! Garrus, I want an overloading EMP in their midst the moment it happens! Kaidan! You're up front next to me. Barrier up; prep a throw. Jaina, prep a warp; Kaidan, that's what your throw is targeting. Tali! You're interference. Harass them with EMPs, hacking, drones – whatever you got; Liara, you too – disrupt them with your biotics after the first blows are thrown. Nothing fancy, just sufficient to keep them off-balance. Wrex and I will take the brunt. Objections…? Good."

The team rearranged with quick efficiency, reaching the main entrance into the Secure Labs and fanning out in a strategic disposition as they passed through.

Their sensor suits suddenly got overwhelmed with static and jamming. They could use their eyes well enough as they approached, though. A large group of hostiles was positioned on and around a large central platform that stood in front of a large horizontal cylindrical tank. A large rachni was shuffling through the tank. The queen.

Two whole squadrons could be seen waiting for them, eight asari commandos and seven geth – of which there were no less than two Primes and two Juggernauts, along with accompanying drones that hovered around. All of them were positioned behind cover and ready, but none of them were still firing. And in the center of them all, standing in front of that cylindrical tank was a lone female figure in a long dark dress with her back turned toward them. Benezia.

"Commander Shepard," the woman's unnaturally cold and monotonous voice echoed loudly across the great laboratory. "You are proving to be a great hindrance to Saren's plans. I was not expecting you to find out about this facility, or my presence here. That proves that you are exceptionally resourceful. That also proves that Saren is right when he thinks you are a great threat to him."

Marcus remained silent.

The woman turned around, bringing them face to face with for the first time. It was the same woman they had all seen on the briefing pictures and vids, but there was something off about her. Her face under her headdress was stony, her eyes seemed dead, listless, a mirror of her eerie tone of voice.

She walked a few steps toward them, Marcus's keen tactical eye noticing slits down the sides of her long skirt, the commando-style pants with medium-heeled boots peeking out from underneath, and heavy pistols strapped to the outside of her thighs.

"You cannot defeat Saren," Benezia continued. "You cannot defeat Sovereign. And it doesn't matter who you bring into the fight," she added, looking pointedly at Liara. "You cannot sway me by bringing my daughter here. I have seen the truth of Saren's words. I have witnessed the power of the Reapers. And once the Conduit is found, the seal on their irresistible, immeasurable power will be broken."

Marcus shrugged.

"Okay," he said and depressed the secondary trigger.

A concussive shot blasted out of the lower bore of his rifle, barreling straight into Benezia. The matriarch's hands went up, a barrier instantly flashing to life, and the round slamming into it with force. Marcus rolled to the side and into the nearby cover, launching another concussive shot, covering his team as they dove for cover.

And then all hell broke loose.

The scintillating fire from no less than thirty weapons from both sides exploded across the expanse of the laboratory. Metallic walls rang out under ricochets, glass objects shattered in spectacular bursts, crates cracked under punishment as concussive shots, EMPs and tech bursts filled the area.

Biotics flared, falling like heavy thumps everywhere, biotic combos thundering like artillery strikes, and a massive field descending down where biotics dueled their sheer strength against strength, trying to overpower one another.

Five times Marcus's shields fell, and all five times he ignored it, staying that one second longer out of cover to provide sustained burst into that one enemy while the edges of his vision darkened. Applying medigel, waiting just long enough to regenerate his shields and boost them with barriers, he charged out again, activating his adrenalin implants, and blasting everything he had on anything he saw.

The enemies were more powerful than most he ever fought. Their weapons were high-grade, expensive commando tech, modded to the highest grade, firing heavy rounds that took heavy toll even on his improved shields and armor. The geth Primes, resilient as ever, squared off against Wrex in a standup fight, strength-for-strength, bullet-for-bullet.

But, no matter how good their weapons were, no matter the fact that there were twice as many of them in total, Benezia's forces lacked the spark. Geth were just synthetics, locked in their logic. Commandos were like Benezia, cold and empty inside, driven mad by the Sovereign's whisper. Their spark, that desire for life and desire to win – was gone. They were that one fraction of the second too slow. That much was enough.

The geth soldiers and drones fell first, overloaded by consecutive EMP's and taken down with but a few good shots. Then, two of asari commandos died, courtesy of Garrus's and Jaina's expert sniping, their heads ripped like a melon by the heavy rounds from the modified snipers. The first Prime fell to Wrex's devastator machinegun, the indomitable battlemaster ignoring all of the weapons fire and sustained wounds as he and his machinegun roared in unison. The second Prime fell to Marcus's explosive-concussive shot, his chest plate caving and then bursting a giant hole.

The geth Juggernauts were dropped in quick succession by semi-automatic sniper fire, the heavy rounds defeating their shields and armor, leaving no geth and only four asari commandoes – two more being felled by a combined use of biotics from Liara and Kaidan, something the opposite team seemed to lack.

"Get ready!" Marcus called out, and then biotically charged the position of the two closer asari, destroying their cover and launching a nova with his fist slamming into the floor. The asari, forced to block the powerful biotic blow, were left completely open to concentrated fire from Shepard's team, the multiple explosive rounds defeating their barriers and shields and tearing the light armor to shreds.

Only three enemies were left, too well hidden behind the rear covered position: two commandos, and Benezia herself.

And then, a dual pistol shot echoed, and two asari bodies slumped out of the opposite sides of the cover.

Marcus raised his fist, halting his looked warily toward the last cover, and then a pair of hands bearing pistols pointed skyward rose slowly up from the cover.

Benezia stood up slowly and stepped out of the cover, keeping her hands up for a moment longer, before she released the grip of the weapons, both pistols dropping down onto the floor.

Bruised and battered, Marcus's team slowly fanned out of their cover to surround her, watching her warily. Marcus spared a look to the sides to see limping movements and medigel injections. It was a hard fight, but everyone was standing. Limping, maybe, but their movements were sure.

His eyes returned to their nemesis.

Benezia's eyes were closed, head slightly sagged down, and her expression calm as she just stood there, her pant-clad legs a pace apart and out of her dress slits. She exhaled slowly, as if waking from a meditation, and looked straight at Marcus.

"Commander Shepard, you must listen to me," she said, her voice bearing new intensity, and a piercing focus reflecting in her eyes. "There is not a lot of time. I don't have a lot of time."

Liara tilted her head in realization, frowning. "… Mother," she said.

"I am sorry, Liara, but the woman I used to be does not exist anymore," she said simply, then returned her gaze to Marcus and Jaina. "It's because of Saren's ship, the Sovereign. It is a vessel unlike any other in this Galaxy. It is a Reaper, a single sentient machine whose construction was based around impossibly advanced and unknown technology, but one of the things I know it is capable of is, plain and simply, mind control. This is what I fell victim to. All of us that had spent time in it have become warped by its influence, to obey it unquestioningly."

"And right now?" Jaina demanded, not taking her aim off of her.

"Right now, I'm fighting against it, but I won't be able to do it for long. I had partitioned a part of my mind to protect it once I realized what was happening, but it is still too late for me. I need you to succeed in stopping Saren, Commander, and I want to give you everything I can in these few short minutes that I have. Please, believe me on this!"

"I'll be the judge of that," Marcus said, promptly unclasping his gauntlet and stepping up to Benezia.

He reached out with his bare hand and touched the side of the matriarch's face.

Images flashed in his head, terrible images, memories of her time on the Sovereign. The whispers in the dark, in the back of her mind, the terrifying pressure and oppressive sensations she felt whilst on that ship, the confusion, doubt, and terror. The realization what the ship itself was doing to her, how it was twisting her mind, the realization it was a living entity. The struggle she went through to preserve and lock out a part of her mind away from the monster in the hope she could somehow find a way to escape. The deeds she was forced to do by Saren; by Sovereign; by the Reaper.

Marcus reeled back from the onslaught, growling and spitting onto the floor.

"Fuck!" He cursed, then glared at Benezia as he stepped back. "How the hell are you even alive right now? I've never felt anything so…" he shook his head in disgust.

Benezia was looking at him with wide eyes.

"You saw it all!" she stated with realization. "That can only mean that you have unlocked the full potential of the Cipher. You see what Protheans see. You have tools at your disposal that Saren does not; that he hasn't and won't ever develop. This… this changes the game plan beyond what I expected!"

"What are you talking about?" Jaina demanded.

"What I'm talking about is this whole… charade," she said as she began typing on her omni-tool, working to unlock all access. "The Reapers… the –" she hissed in pain, grabbing the side of her head. "I don't have much time. Listen. The Reapers are out there; the ancient synthetic species that destroyed the Protheans. The Sovereign's mind control has indoctrinated Saren to obey them, and all he wants to bring about their return without even realizing that he is the puppet. The problem is, there is no simple solution to stopping them. Even if you kill Saren, the Reapers will still be out there. There will be no 'closing the gates' and hoping the monsters stay away. They'll be getting here sooner or later. And the Protheans knew this when they were losing the War 50000 years ago! They have attempted to prepare the lesser, un-evolved species to fight the Reapers once they came back. Asari, turians, humans – the Protheans left each of us with caches of technology in hopes that our advancement could be accelerated. They left data about the Reapers, and I'm not talking about fragments; they left clear, specific data. Hoards of it. But they didn't realize that we wouldn't advance sufficiently and quickly enough to unlock the full potential of the caches they left us, and they didn't realize that the Reapers would leave a vanguard to fuel the flames of hatred, keeping us off-balance so that we never do. Don't you realize it yet? That vanguard was Sovereign, and he was operating behind the scenes long before any one of us was even born!"

"How?!" Wrex barked.

"By tapping our networks, observing us, and then manipulating the individuals that crossed its path," Benezia said. "Saren was only the most recent one and the most influential, the one that had the sufficient access that Sovereign needed. That's why Sovereign made its move now. Do you know where Saren found Sovereign? He found it at the very edge of the Perseus Veil. And that's not all. According to the data that Saren has managed to somehow reconstruct, he has deduced that the last time Sovereign was active was 300 years ago, and deeper inside the Perseus veil! Before that, he was active over the course of the Krogan Rebellions. Before that, during the Rachni Wars. That is too much of a coincidence."

"Assuming the data's accurate, she's right; it is too much to be a coincidence," Garrus said sideways to Marcus.

"She's not lying," Marcus said, sensing Benezia's aura with his ability.

"Are you telling me that a single machine is responsible for millions of deaths and every single major conflict for the past two thousand years?" Wrex asked angrily. "What an insult!"

"At least you're not saying how outrageous it sounds," Jaina said.

"Oh, I'm way past 'outrageous'," Wrex growled. "Rogue Spectre, resurrected rachni, cloned krogan, giant death machines? Hah! This has become my everyday routine!"

"I have no proof of any of this," Benezia said. "But I need to set you up on your path. I need to give you everything!"

She grunted, touching her temple with a shaking hand.

"And those cashes of technology the Protheans left?" Jaina prompted? "Are they beacons?"

"No, they are more than mere beacons," Benezia said, breathing, composing her mental fortitude. "The Protheans have left a massive computer array on Thessia," she said with clenched teeth as she fought off head pain. "It still functions. And it is hidden underneath the statue of the Goddess Athame, in her temple in Armali, Thessia."

There was a moment of silence.

"How did I not know of that?" Liara demanded slowly, her voice shaky.

"Because this is not something that is freely given to just about anyone, Little Wing," Benezia ground out. "Only the highest echelons of the rulling matriarchs are privy to it. And from whatever meager data we have managed to extract from it, we suspect that the Protheans have left similar caches among all other species."

She groaned, pressing on her temple as she turned to Shepard.

"The Protheans knew about the Reapers and tried to warn us," she said. "But they failed. They expected we'd be able to read the data, but we couldn't. Whatever data we manage to scry is jumbled. Only the strongest matriarchs could even attempt it safely. But you're different, Commander. The fact that you read me so easily tells me that your Cipher has granted you powers equal that of the Protheans' natural ability. You, of all people, would be able to glean its secrets, and that means that as a Spectre, you must push to gain access to the Athame beacon! It holds so much that we do not know…"

"And Saren?" Marcus demanded. "Where does he fit into this? The Sovereign? The Conduit?"

"All I know is that the Protheans did something to stop the Reapers from utilizing their usual means of returning to the galaxy," she said, then swallowed. There was a strain in her voice now, and a frown of concentration marred her face. "I know that whatever it is is on the Citadel, and the Conduit is the key to getting there. Is it a portal? A passage? I don't know. What I do know is that he needs to get to the lost Prothean world of Ilos to get it, and that the only passage is through the lost Mu relay. That is why I was here. The rachni queens inherit the memories of their mothers. They transcribe it through their genes. I have extracted the data from her mind; I was not gentle." She raised her omni-tool. "It is all on my omni-tool. I have unlocked it, but I had already sent the data to Saren before you arrived."

"So what is his next step?" Jaina asked.

"He – Agh!" she growled, her teeth barred and head shooting to the side and grabbing her temple. When she returned to face Marcus, a trickle of blood was flowing through her nose.

Liara made an almost involuntary step toward her when Benezia raised a halting arm.

"This needs to be done," she said coldly, her breath coming in at labors as shivers began to rake her body. "Saren plans to get to the Citadel via Ilos, but he doesn't want to do it just yet. He needs an army. He's breeding it on Virmire… Krogan clones… Implanted with combat knowledge… Nothing but tools to be discarded. He won't get to Ilos until he's sure he has a force that is unstoppable for what he's planning or until his hand is forced. The rachni queen… her children were supposed to be ours… Gah! No! Not ours! His. Sovereigns… Another horde of cannon fodder."

"And what will Sovereign do while they're making their move to the Citadel?" Marcus demanded.

Benezia shook her head violently.

"Don't know. Attacking maybe… outside… in space –"

There was a convulsion that ripped through her, and she dropped down to her knees and sat on the floor, holding herself up against it with her arms. She was shaking hard.

"I can't… fight it off much longer," she gasped, speaking haltingly. She clenched her teeth in an act of blind defiance to what Sovereign's compulsion was doing to her. "Comm… Commander, y-you must… gather the g-galaaxy… you… you. Must. Force. Them!"

She gasped and panted, Liara crouching down next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder, her face pale and disbelieving as she watched what her mother was going through.

"We…" Liara whispered. "We can save her perhaps. Shiala… she was cured of Sovereign's influence with the help of the Thorian. It could help her…"

"Shiala… sh… she d-didn't spend… time… close t-to central core of… S-Sovereign's body," Benezia choked out as purple blood dribbled out from her nose, eyes, and ears down onto the metal floor before her. "It's… too late. I w-won't s-survive this strain on my brain, and… I don't need to."

"Mother…" Liara whispered, trailing off.

Strange peace suddenly engulfed Benezia as shakes and tremors subsided.

"You've… you've always made me proud, Little Wing," she almost whispered, looking up at her daughter, purple blood pouring out of her calm eyes that held a spark of her old self. "A-Always. But you hae… have work to do… big work… Keep…"

A final powerful convulsion ripped through her, and she fell limp in Liara's hands, her dead eyes open and staring into nothing.

Utter silence filled the room. Nothing moved or breathed for seconds, not even the rachni queen in the glass tank.

Then, after a long moment, Liara began moving as if in a trance, feeling as though the slightest breeze could tip her over.

She laid her mother's body down onto the floor, placing the dead woman's hands over her chest and closing her eyes. The girl's eyes were wide, unblinking, her face pale and bearing the signs of shock. As she stood up, her body began shivering.

Jaina was there in a flash, pulling her in for a firm, tight hug. Liara's hand shot up around her almost on instinct. And then she began shaking. There were no tears, no sorrow, no pain. Just shock and powerful tremors wracking her body. She held on to Jaina like a lifeline. And Jaina was there. Whispering sweet nothings right into her ear and letting Liara's nose be filled with the familiar, comforting scent of her hair.

And they ceased. The tremors ceased like they were wiped away, and Liara's eyes returned to focus as she hugged back and breathed in deeply.

"Thank you," she said as she finally separated from Jaina. "I… don't know what came over me. I thought… I thought that I have left all the feelings for Benezia a long way in the past."

"Hell, girl," Ashley murmured from the side, laying a hand on Liara's shoulder, "You're only a mortal. But you're a soldier, alright."

Liara looked around to meet the supportive looks of her crewmates and nod back. Her eyes lingered a moment longer on Marcus's longing gaze, exchanging silent words of encouragement. He had to remain the leader. And it was more than alright.

"Thank you, all," Liara said softly.

"Good to see you're still with us," Garrus said, then turned his head toward the huge glass tank. "That just leaves one loose end left now."

The queen, as alien looking as any of the present species would feel, was just standing calmly at the center of the tank, her head occasionally tilting to one side or the other, quite insect-like. Marcus approached the tank, and the queen raised her head to look straight at him. There was a distinct sensation of there being a person behind those huge insectoid eyes. The queen then looked somewhere to the side, as if pointing.

"Over here," an electronically simulated voice called from off to the side.

Marcus turned his head and saw a hand-sized device with holographic control displays.

"Here," the device called again, its voice feminine in its basic form.

Marcus looked at the queen. The alien shifted on its feet.

"Yes," the device called. "I speak through here."

Marcus walked up to the device and picked it up, turning and approaching the glass again, looking at the queen with judging intensity through every moment of it. He quickly set up the simple user interface, and spoke,

"Can you understand me?"

"Yes," the queen spoke back. "We are the rachni queen. We sing for those left behind, the ones who were Rachni once, before they succumbed to disease of song."

Marcus frowned. He did not like this one bit. Tartakovski had said that the device was crude and translated intent behind the word, and assigned the proper word based on that. But, this was more than crude. He could think of a hundred metaphoric meanings for a 'song', a hundred metaphoric meanings for 'desease', and a thousand others for 'desease of the song'. One wrong interpretation and everything would go to hell.

A soft touch landed on his shoulder.

"Hey," Jaina called softly, a gentle and knowing smile dancing in the corner of her lips. "Why don't you let me handle this?"

Marcus sighed, realizing he'd be overthinking this to death. He handed her the device, and Jaina stepped up to the glass barrier, locking her eyes with the queen's.

"You say you sing for the one's left behind," she said. "Does that mean the rachni of two thousand years ago?"

The device translated instantly, but there were a few moments in which the queen took time to analyze the meaning.

"Yes," the alien said. "They died. I remain. I sing for them."

Jaina thought on it.

"The song of the rachni is communication. Isn't it?"

"Yes," the queen replied almost immediately. "Your songs flat. Colorless. They do not color the air. They can be… not-song. You can sing one thing, but the real song can be another. The not-song. We understand the not-song, but we cannot sing it."

Jaina hummed, sharing a look with Marcus. What queen spoke of now matched what Tartakovski had said earlier. She quickly updated the translator VI with a few choice meanings, and continued:

"Why do you say that rachni had a 'disease of song' two thousand years ago?

The queen took a moment to formulate her words.

"They… desired… foul," the translator struggled. "They raged against those clean. They demand foulness, spread foulness. Their songs were sick… oily shadows. Their sick songs were… not natural… wrong to life, peace. Something forced wrong songs onto them, and they changed. There was a voice that came from the sky. It changing them. One after another, the voices were hushed. Then, the voice forced them to resonate with its sour yellow note. They spread foul songs. Then, they raged against… asari… salarians… krogan."

Jaina turned to look at the back of her team.

"If that does not sound like mind control, then I'm a klinx," Garrus spoke darkly.

Wrex gave him a measuring sideways look.

"You already look like a klinx to me," the burly krogan muttered.

"Piss off."

"Shhhh!" Ashley shushed them angrily, waving her forefinger over her barred teeth.

Marcus had stepped up next to Jaina.

"How were you not affected by it?" he asked.

"My mother heard foul songs," the queen said. "She saw how far the disease spread. We heard her cry. She knew… she could not escape. She sent me into emptiness between… stars… hoping I would live and sing the life song for the rachni to others; to asari, to salarians, to krogan."

"Are you telling us that Rachni never wanted war?" Jaina asked.

"We want to spread the songs of peace," the queen said. "We want to spread the song of rachni again. True rachni only wish for… harmony… with other singers of songs, no matter how song might be different."

"Why do I get the feeling that convincing the Council, let alone the rest of the Galaxy is going to be a bit trickier than that?" Garrus asked sarcastically.

"You're right, it will be," Liara suddenly spoke up, walking up to Marcus and placing her hand on his shoulder. She looked calm, collected, and determined. She radiated peace, but her eyes were fiery. Her piercing look shifted from Marcus to the queen, then back at him.

"The Council will never allow the rachni queen to walk free," she said. "My mother has taught me many things, and one of them is that the crown has only two commandments: further secure the power you already have, and gain more power. Every government does this, and the Council is no different. What do you think will happen if the queen were to be brought before the Council? I can tell you. She would immediately be placed in custody and brought to an undisclosed location. They would do everything in their power to cover it up from the public eye. The queen would then be imprisoned – a gilded prison perhaps, but a prison nonetheless – where they would prepare her to use her as a pawn. It would be even worse for her than it was for the krogan. The krogan were uplifted in a hurry as a quick means to an end, and were then put down when the control was lost. This time though, the queen would be in controlled conditions from the start. She would be put to tests. She would be experimented on. She would be conditioned. Her children would be conditioned. The entire species would become a tool of the Council to be unleashed at their whim.

"And if the public ever found out, it wouldn't be much different, either. The mob still sees the rachni as the ravaging monsters that are responsible for the great destruction. How quickly do you think someone would cry out that the even krogan wouldn't have been the problem if the rachni haven't done what they did? The mob would demand the queen to stand trial for the crimes she never committed. She wouldn't be executed, but I assure you that she would never be set free either. And as a prisoner, the same thing would have happened to her: tests, experiments, conditioning, and being used as a pawn."

She looked once more to the queen's prison, then back at Marcus.

"Every species has the right to self-determination. Every creature has the right to be free if it doesn't actively endanger other sentients." She nodded toward the tank. "And this queen has expressed her peaceful intent. And before you dare say: 'But what if she's lying?', then I call you a fear-mongering hypocrite of a politician. It's 'innocent until proven guilty', in case you've forgotten."

Marcus smirked then. He realized she was speaking to his helm's integrated vid recording device. Her words were meant for the Council once his report was sent and they reviewed the files.

"Okay," Liara spoke up louder. "Fine! Let's forget about the cliché phrases. How about the fact that the rachni queens during the Rachni Wars never bothered to respond to our hails? For centuries, hundreds of attempts in every possible method that there was no way that they could not understand, yet the rachni stayed silent. Yet now, I see a queen that not only wants to talk, but talks peace?

"Okay. Fine!" she was gaining wind. Angry, fiery wind. "What about the fact that my mother, one of the most powerful matriarchs, most powerful biotics, and an asari with one of the greatest mental powers in existence now lies dead after that very mind was subverted by a machine, the very same machine that had, most likely, have been the one to do the same to the old rachni queens?"

She took a deep breath, composing herself.

"Divide and conquer," she said. "Eons-old military tactics. If you want someone beaten as easily as possible, then you need to keep them from trusting each other; you need to keep them fighting each other. You need to keep them technologically stagnated, to turn their creations against them, like the geth, so that they are afraid of studying deeper into the field, and so that they are unable to effectively fight against the bigger and more sinister threat. And you'd need to manipulate a few key figures," she looked pointedly down at her mother's corpse. "To use those powerful people to sow dissent under the guise of something else, so that they choose war, rather than a diplomatic solution."

Finishing her piece, she stared defiantly at Marcus, or rather beyond him, just daring anyone to say something other than letting the rachni queen go.

Marcus shared an amused look with Jaina, then looked back at the queen through her cage.

"Did you hear all that?" he asked.

"Your songs are strong," the queen said. "Your songs resonate with mine. I wish to prevent my kind from being forced to sing the songs of disease."

"Simply running from it won't help," Marcus said. "These things destroyed the Protheans, fifty thousand years ago. They won't stop until we're dead as well."

"The memories of Ancient Queens speak of the Thought-Singers that ruled the Galaxy when Rachni were… less skilled of song… than we were during the wars against asari, salarians, and krogan," the queen said. "The Thought-Singers were strong. They conquered. Their songs were of demand and subjugation. Yet, they fell. I heed your songs. If I become free, I will sing the song of unity with your cause to my children."

"Noveria is freezing to your kind just as to anyone else," Marcus said. "How do you intend to survive or escape it?"

"Our… ship… was brought here," the queen said. "These… needle-men wanted to study it too. We heard their songs; a single craft within it still functions. We will use it. Our ancient memories tell us how. We will know how to fly it."

Marcus looked to his people, taking in their faces. Confident determination was etched on them. He then looked to his side at Jaina and Liara. Their piercing eyes looked back at him confidently. There was all the support he needed, right there.

He turned back toward the rachni queen and spoke officially:

"Rachni queen, as the proxy agent of the Council of Galactic Species, I am offering you a cessation of hostilities between our two entities, effective immediately. Do you accept?"

The queen took a moment to process the meaning, before making a nod with her head and the device produced a sound:

"Yes."

"Then, with my power as a Spectre, I'm releasing you from captivity," Marcus said and proceeded to punch in a few commands on the holding tank terminal.

The tank rose to a higher level, and then the doors at its end opened up. The queen shuffled out of the tank, and turning her head one last time in greeting, left the laboratory in short order.

It was only then, after the queen had left, that Marcus realized he might have created another volatile situation right in their midst. He steeled himself and turned around to face Wrex.

"Wrex," he called slowly.

"Shepard," Wrex replied with a big, nasty grin on his face.

Marcus tilted his head. "You seem… happy?"

The other teammates took a careful, scrutinizing look at the grinning krogan.

"I am. Why wouldn't I be?" he barked.

"I was… expecting that you'd have voiced something against us releasing the queen by this point," Marcus said.

Wrex raised a brow. "What? Why would you think that?"

"Be-cause the rachni are, like, supposed to be the ancient enemies of krogan, or… something like that?" Ashley groused.

Wrex looked back silently down at her, then shook his big head.

"You people obviously have no idea what you're talking about," he rumbled in mild irritation. "The rachni were not krogan enemies. They were the Council's enemies. You thought I'd be angry if the queen was released? Why? You thought I was gonna complain about something like letting my species' sacrifice go in vain? Hah! Us krogan want to fight! We didn't need the Council to beg us to fight a rachni; we jumped at the chance!"

He shook his head, gaining a vicious grin.

"Nah, I don't hate the rachni. I hate the Council – the Council that shakes and shits its pants at the very idea of a rachni. I want the satisfaction of watching them pyjacks squirm when the big threat is here again, and krogan are no longer an option as the tool to bring it down. Hahahahahahaha! Ahhh, Shepard… you have no idea how you've made my day."

Ashley, Kaidan, Garrus, Tali, and Liara all closed their gaping mouths at his declaration.

"Well…" Kaidan spoke. "I guess that's one way of looking at things."

"He has a point, though," Jaina said.

Marcus hummed in silent affirmation. He took a deep breath and released it with a rumble, then looked down to Benezia's body.

"The threat is contained. We shall secure the facility and arrange for a backup nonetheless," he said. "The Normandy will come to us; we'll try to find them an LZ. Jay, we'll prepare the reports. I suspect that by the time we're fully done here and back in space, the Council will want to talk to us."

He looked around the facility once more.

"Let's hurry so we can get the fuck out of this frost. My ass is about to fall off."

..


ON AN ADITIONAL NOTE,

Thanks for all the amazing review response for the previous chapter guys! I am really blown away by all the positive feedback! It's like a nourishment and a refreshment at the same time. So, I hope I can count on more of it for this chapter too! It would be a very nice start to a New Year to know you are still out there.

So, how do you feel about my version of Noveria events? How do you feel about Jaina's talk with Wrex? About Benezia? About the rachni queen?

And have a happy New Year, guys!